Nearly 3 British Columbians Dying Each Day Due to Toxic, Illicit Drugs

March 4, 2020. Article by: Andy Watson

The BC Coroners Service and partners released data on illicit drug toxicity deaths in the province in Febraury 2020. This data shows the number of people, from all walks of life, who died of drug overdose in 2019.

While fewer people died in 2019– there were 1,542 deaths in 2018 compared to 981 deaths in 2019 – the loss of life continues to be devasting for families across the province. Reports of fewer people dying year over year provides some hope; however, we know more must be done.

The fact is, illicit drug death totals in recent years have been higher than motor-vehicle incidents, suicides and homicides combined in B.C.

A few things to know:

  • 2019 is the first year since the public health emergency was declared in April 2016 that British Columbia experienced a decrease in the number of deaths
  • Fentanyl continues to be detected in more than 4 in every 5 deaths, showing the drug supply in our province is toxic
  • Men aged 30-59 continue to die at a higher rate
  •  An average of 2.7 British Columbians died each day
  • BC Emergency Health Services received close to 24,000 overdose calls; paramedics responded to about 65 overdose calls a day


We know from research by Dr. Mike Irvine with the BC Centre for Disease Control, that harm reduction services and projects are helping keep people safer. It is estimated that if these initiatives were not in place, the death toll could be 2 to 3 times higher.

Since the public health emergency was announced almost 4 years ago, we have seen a shift in attitudes related to drug use and addiction. Thankfully, the stigma that keeps many people from reaching out for help is decreasing.

While these are promising signs, even more work needs to be done to communicate that addiction is a health condition and illness and we must treat it as such and provide solutions.

Together, we can impact change and save lives. We must continue to focus on reducing stigma and on brave, innovative and courageous solutions. There is a need to focus on creating options and ways to help people find their own pathway to recovery.

In a CBC interview with Portugal’s Dr. Joao Goulao, the head of Portugal’s Intervention on Addictive Behaviours and Dependencies Service, one thing resonated with me. He said: “In a completely naïve society, we knew nothing, not even the differences between different drugs.” In many ways, I think it’s what our drug-death data shows here in B.C. While we know we have a toxic drug supply and a high degree of mixed drug toxicity deaths with fentanyl being a major culprit, we’re far from removing fentanyl from the market.

I realize it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison looking at health-care systems in Portugal and B.C. There are many differences in our system, but there’s still an opportunity to learn from their experience and those in other jurisdictions. A key principle for this is the four-pillared approach, one B.C. has adopted. Let’s build on this kind of evidence-based approach.

Recently there has been less interest from the public and a level of fatigue on the issue. Even though other health issues with lower rates of death or injuries play out in the media, the illicit drug crisis struggles to stay top of mind for most British Columbians. So, let’s urge our neighbours and friends to reconsider our values and rethink how to keep this issue in the public narrative.

One-thousand people dying each year in our province is far too many. And the long-term health impacts from brain injuries of those not dying from overdose events hasn’t even materialized yet – that’s going to be the next hurdle for us to tackle in the crisis.

Note: Today’s post was written by Andy Watson, Manager of Strategic Communications, BC Coroners Service. The BC Coroners Service investigates all sudden and unnatural deaths in the province. Andy and his team work hard to provide answers about why and how these deaths are happening.